In 2001, Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren were rehearsing a production of August Strindberg’s ‘The Dance of Death’ at the Broadhurst Theatre in New York City. A week before the previews opened, the events of September 11 shook the city and its inhabitants to the core. But the play continued on.
“We opened the next week, at a time when you couldn’t move off Manhattan,” says McKellen, sitting with Mirren in the basement room of a restaurant in Hackney where the pair filmed a scene for their new movie ‘The Good Liar’ last autumn. “All the bridges were closed. It was extraordinary. You couldn’t move off, you couldn’t come in. Manhattan was a world by itself.”
“And it was an amazing time to be there,” Mirren jumps in. “I’m so honoured I was there at that time, honestly. It was so moving and impressive. I thought the New Yorkers were incredible. They just got on it with it in the most amazing way.”
“You might have thought this was a play they would have avoided, but no,” McKellen continues. “We were the latest play on and the locals, having seen all the old hits years ago, came. Those other theatres were empty because the tourists couldn’t come. You could walk into ‘The Producers’ to see Nathan Lane, but you couldn’t get a ticket to see us because it was the locals. They had the blitz spirit. They were going to go on and go to the theatre in New York. And we became the centre of that need.”
That production of ‘The Dance of Death,’ surprisingly, marked the first time the British actors officially met. While both were aware of each other’s career, McKellen, 80, and Mirren, 74, never had an opportunity to work together before the play (“I’m sure if I had been straight I would have been standing in line,” McKellen quips of his co-star’s popularity). And it’s only now, in Bill Condon’s thriller ‘The Good Liar,’ that the actors have teamed for a film.
“Peter Hall, the great theatre director, used to say that all members of the English Actors Equity are part of the same company and they could work well together because there were shared values and shared experiences, even though they’d never met,” McKellen says, speaking a year later at the Corinthia Hotel in London ahead of the film’s release. “So when you work with people you don’t know but you’ve seen from afar, it’s a bit like coming home even though you’ve only just arrived.”
“Doing that play, which is very much a two-hander and being in New York at that time was a very bonding experience,” Mirren adds. “Apart from the fact that obviously we come from the same tradition and we’ve followed each other all of our lives, I do think that shared experience meant that when we came back together on this movie there was a whole world of understanding.”
‘The Good Liar,’ adapted from Nicholas Searle’s 2015 novel of the same name, tells the story of an ageing con man named Roy Courtnay (McKellen) who conspires to steal the fortune of a recent widow, Betty (Mirren). Everything is not as it seems in the story, which unfolds slowly to a surprising climax. That ending was what convinced Condon the novel would make for a good film after producer Greg Yolen suggested the director read the book, which he did in a single flight. The pair quickly looked into the rights, and New Line, who had already optioned the novel, brought Condon on-board. They tapped Jeffrey Hatcher, the screenwriter behind McKellen and Condon’s last collaboration, ‘Mr Holmes,’ to reimagine the story for the screen.
For Mirren, the role was a simple yes, particularly because she was interested in working with McKellen and Condon, who previously collaborated on ‘Mr Holmes’ and Oscar-winning ‘Gods and Monsters.’
“Sometimes you read something and it really scares you,” Mirren says. “You think, ‘I don’t know if I’m right for this.’ And often you do it for that very reason, because it’s going to be a challenge. This one I didn’t feel like that. I’m not saying it wasn’t a challenge — it always is — but I thought, ‘Oh, yeah, that role plays to my strengths. I can see that working.’ You’re not fighting against who you are naturally. The whole fun of the movie is finding those different levels and stories that the characters have.”
For all its twists, it’s an intimate movie about human interaction, one that relies on its actors’ to pile on layers of deception that leave the audience guessing until the very end. In that way, it’s a slightly unusual film coming from a major Hollywood studio, especially in a year of sequels and action-led blockbusters, and it’s also the rare movie that tells the story of older characters.
“It’s still surprising that we got to make this movie,” Condon reflects. “It was sort of like, ‘Wow, they’re doing it!’ It’s a tribute to New Line and Warner Bros that they decided to make a lot of these grown-up movies. But, yeah, it’s hard. It’s a movie with two older leads, and it’s not about mortality.”
“Normally in this sort of a story it would be characters in their mid-30s or something,” Mirren says with a laugh. “The story is absolutely about these characters and nobody else they’re not peripheral in any way to the central thrust of this extraordinary plot.”
Don’t miss it!
‘The Good Liar’ is now showing across the UAE.